When did you first learn about periods? Recently I was working on a story about Mala, a young girl in India, who for the first time at 16 learned about the basics of her own reproductive system and I couldn’t help but be shocked. Sure, as someone immersed in sexual and reproductive health issues working at Pathfinder and as the product of parents who were more than happy to answer any and all questions around bodies/health/sex when I was growing up, I might be a little out of the normal range, but 16 as the first time to learn about the ins and outs of your period?! How to use sanitary pads or tampons?! Or what options you have to prevent pregnancy?!
So I did an informal survey of some of my colleagues at Pathfinder about when they first learned about periods. They ranged in age and answers—from finding out via the Cosby Show in 1st grade and asking ‘Mom, what’s that?’ to an organized class in a public school in 4th grade with a discussion led by the school nurse—but every colleague I chatted with knew what a period was, or had a discussion about periods and pads/tampons by around age 10.
Why this gap for Mala? Not having met her, I couldn’t ask her directly. However I do know that Mala’s story is not unusual. In Bihar, where Mala grew up, early marriage and childbirth are common. In Mala’s village, young women often suffer from a vaginal fungus as a result of inadequate hygiene around their periods. Because families generally don’t find it worthwhile to spend money sending girls to the doctor, these infections tend to linger. Globally girls like Mala from India to Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea to Nigeria generally lack access to information and services for their reproductive health—a deficiency that extends throughout life.
Luckily Mala had the opportunity to learn about her body—from periods to pregnancy—through a unique Pathfinder program. Armed with new knowledge, she discussed different options for her future with her parents such as cancelling an arranged marriage so that she could stay in school. She also became an advocate for young women in her village, encouraging other girls to attend the Pathfinder trainings and to stay in school, and reasoning with families that letting their daughters purchase menstrual pads helped keep girls healthier and saved money on later doctor’s visits.
Mala made a big change in her community simply learning about periods, pads, and pills. We can make a big change by empowering more girls and women to do the same.
Help get the word out about the importance of reproductive health care from girl to woman. Share Mala’s story on Girl2Woman.org. For every video (Mala or others) shared on the site, a generous donor will give $1 to Pathfinder programs to help women and girls—up to $1 million! Share your own experience about when you learned about periods and help raise awareness about this important issue!
(Want to learn more about Mala? Visit Girl2Woman.org and click ‘Learn More’ under the main video. You can watch her story as well as stories from girls and women around the world.)
Photo: screen grab from Mala's story